We should admire the Gardiner Expressway, not tear it down
First, a confession: I love the Gardiner Expressway, not for its utility but for its aesthetic beauty. I kid you not. I am enamoured of the Gardiner not in the way a driver loves a road, but in a broader sense, in the manner that an infrastructure geek becomes enthralled with the man-made structures and physical experience of the city. The Gardiner is awesome.
I knew about the Gardiner before I ever lived in Toronto—not merely its existence but also its meaning, because as a frequent visitor my friends forcibly schooled me in Toronto’s civic obsessions. I learned early on that the Gardiner was a blight, a physical and psychological barrier that cut residents off not merely from the lakefront but from the notion of Toronto as a city on water, a city with an endless horizon. That narrative turned out to be much easier to swallow when I didn’t live in Toronto. Once I moved here, I discovered that the Gardiner, though admittedly crumbling, remains a feat of engineering. It also provides a stunning elevated view of downtown and Lake Ontario, one I never tire of. (Ironically, in my earliest trips from Montreal to visit friends, it was driving the Gardiner that reminded me Toronto had a waterfront.)
But you don’t truly experience the structure while riding atop it; you have to go beneath, especially in the east end where the expressway abuts the Keating Channel. That’s where its perfect rectangular concrete struts, elegantly spaced, mark time like music along Lake Shore Boulevard. As you make your way east the columns vault the roadbed higher, letting in sunlight. Driving westward the experience is reversed: as the supports become ever shorter, bearing down upon your head, it’s like a warp tunnel into the city core. After a day of biking on the waterfront, the act of passing beneath the Gardiner back into downtown at sunset feels like crossing the threshold between Toronto at its daytime and nighttime best. The Gardiner actually fits nicely into the city, and the weave only gets tighter with time: where once there was a no-man’s-land of vacant lots, parking garages and driving ranges adjacent to the expressway, now there are condo towers full of residents.
You might want to make a point of experiencing the Gardiner soon, though, because it could be headed for landfill. Public consultations are now underway on the future of the elevated Gardiner from Jarvis Street to the Don Valley Parkway. The options under consideration are, one, to tear it down entirely and replace it with an eight-lane Lake Shore Boulevard and a new, smaller ramp to the DVP (the “remove” option), or, two, to tear down only the elevated section east of the DVP, keep the vaulting exit ramps intact, rebuild the elevated roadbed, and complement it with a six-lane Lake Shore Boulevard (the “hybrid” option). City council is expected to choose one or the other in June.
Over time, I’ve come to believe that a teardown would be a surrender to this city’s inferiority complex. The Gardiner is not what holds Toronto back from being a great city, and if the main reason to tear down any part of it is essentially for therapy, then Toronto needs to get its collective head out of its ass and go for a walk beneath the bloody thing—because it’s just not that bad. Admittedly it’s not the kind of place you can hang out with coffee. It’s a travel corridor, noisy and bustling, but as travel corridors go it has unique appeal.
But this decision will not rest upon aesthetic considerations. The advantages and disadvantages of each alternative are fairly straightforward. The remove option would run the city about $470 million, including long-term operating costs, open up an additional 12 acres of developable land, and improve the pedestrian experience—but would produce four years’ worth of construction delays and increase commute times significantly. (The projections show that, by 2031, the remove option would add between three and five minutes to baseline commute times into downtown from areas across the city.) The hybrid option would result in 18 months’ worth of construction delays and keep commute times mostly in check, but it would require a lot more money—at least $400 million more, including operating costs. The options present a prickly political problem for mayor John Tory and all of council’s right, who generally tend to favour both cars and parsimony. In this case they can’t have both. If they want to be cheap, they’ll have to make life even more miserable for drivers.
This will be a crucial dilemma for the city, since it represents a clash of civic obsessions: the hoary future-of-the-Gardiner debate is colliding head-on with the more recent what-to-do-about-gridlock debate. I’d argue the new obsession is infinitely more important than the old one: in the place of aspirational hand-wringing we now have genuine frustration with the lived experience of the city, which is the kind of problem city hall can and should act upon. The city’s population continues to grow, commute times are through the roof, and in the long run they’re unlikely to improve. The battle is really about keeping their growth in check. And it’s not merely about commutes into downtown: it’s also about commutes out of the core by downtown dwellers, and the general movement of goods and people throughout the region.
That’s the main advantage of the hybrid option: travel in the city would function better. Some might fret over creating new problems with induced demand, but if we’re going to open up the Gardiner’s surrounding lands for development then real, justifiable increases in demand should perhaps be the greater concern. Yes the cost to taxpayers is higher, but improvements to transportation infrastructure, whether roads or transit, are always done on the basis of imperfect information, and always at great expense. Meanwhile, some of the key advantages of the remove option—most notably its pedestrian improvements—are overstated. If there are buildings and destinations on either side of the Gardiner that pedestrians are eager to reach, they’ll happily traverse the chasm; they may even enjoy the experience like I do.
The hidden costs of the remove option are to be found in the added frustration of travel. If the Gardiner is torn down Toronto could congratulate itself for being a progressive city, but then end up tearing its hair out in frustration, for generations to come, over its inability to get around. Think of all the downtown development in the last 15 years—the condos, the office towers, all the intensified densities of people and travel—and try to imagine how much worse downtown gridlock would be if we had dismantled the Gardiner back in 2001. In retrospect, it’s possible that the act of tearing down the expressway would have been a hindrance to development. (At the very least, the lesson of the condo boom is that the Gardiner is no barrier to development.) Toronto needs to be able to keep people moving more than it needs to pat itself on the back.
17 thoughts on “We should admire the Gardiner Expressway, not tear it down”
It’s an eye sore on this city. They should cover it with something aesthetically stunning.
Any decisions need to made in an awareness that, Gardiner or not, commuting patterns will evolve because of more people living downtown and/or places of employment not being centralized. Also, relative to that and to technology, lifestyle and amenities the private car is already obsolescent. We don’t want to spend a fortune to serve a need that has gone away by the time we’ve finished the project.
This Informer speaks the truth. The Gardiner is one of the wonders of Toronto. I love it. We’ve all been brainwashed by the slactivists to believe it’s something much less worthy than it is.
Build over and under it with shops, residential, more office space, city farming and green space. Problem solved. No more weather deterioration. Remove traffic lights, come up with a better traffic and pedestrian system with sky walk ways that do not require traffic to stop. This would be the envy of any metropolis.
I think that Toronto’s collective decision that, ultimately, the Gardiner would be torn down–or our acceptance that it _is_ a barrier–has stopped us from improving the crossings beneath it. The tear-down option would result in a river of cars at grade–rather than an artieral that for very little money (a few millions, probably, not hundreds of millions) could be made easier and safer to cross on foot or by bike, far far less of a barrier than we’ve accepted it to be.
Tear it down. The argument that not having it will lead to frustrations in the future is misguided. Tearing down the highway will spur the creation of alternate means of getting around, be it improved GO Train service, better transit, Smart Track, etc.
As long as the elevated highway is there, it’s a signal that the car is the best way to get around the city. That kind of thinking needs to change. Look around at the amount of development happening and the increasing number of people coming into the city to live and work.
Tearing it down signals that we’re looking to the future, not sticking with the past.
This is a valuable topic to debate. No one would choose to have the Gardiner and Lakeshore if building from scratch but question now is what to do moving forward. I think that Lakeshore, because it is ugly, dark and has traffic lights is actually worse than the Gardiner. We should maintain the Gardiner and dramatically green and make more-pedestrian-friendly Lakeshore Blvd. One change I would make to Gardiner is to split the existing 6-lanes into separated 2x2x2 – that way, 2 middle lanes (with barriers) can be reversed to bring cars INTO downtown in the AM and OUT of downtown in the PM (like Jarvis’ middle lane).
Go the Big Dig route…oh wait, we can’t think that grande in Toronto.
Ya seeing a hwy in the air is cool I whold liked it if they rock it down be fore fort youk.
Maybe save all the up rights , put Toronto Historical Society plaques on all of them, demolish the suspended road part , tunnel beneath for through city traffic and create a park on the surface that spans the citywide with pedestrian bridges connecting above all the roads that cross . The up rights would look like an art piece .
The Gardiner is a part of Toronto heritage , it needs to be preserved. Everyone was belly aching about loosing Stollery’s. Why not save the freaking Gardiner?
Agreed. The view from the gardiner at night while smoking a joint or something. Just awesome. With some drake. “running through the 6 with my woes”. Yep, love driving in this city.
Imagine the shit-storm gridlock if they teared The Gardiner down. THINK ABOUT THE GOD DAMN FUTURE TORONTO. THINK ABOUT 20, 30, 50 years AHEAD!!!
It is a business decision not a landscaping problem. Commerce moves on the Gardiner.
Folks who drive their big rigs, little SUV’s, cars, are doing business. Coming and going to the commercial centres along the Don Valley. How are the semi’s that carry raw materials from the south of the province going to drop their goods to the manufacturers on the East side of Toronto without the Don Valley link off the Gardiner and QEW. These businesses are employment districts in our city. The jobs they create are needed to allow for
growth in our city. Stop the easy movement of goods, will just lead to plugging up the 427 to 401 link to the Don Valley, redirecting commercial traffic southbound on the DVP to manufacturers from York Mills to the Lakeshore.
This is not a solution, erasing our primary route for commerce. This will be a problem that the landscape lovers and boulevarders dream about so they can jog and pedal on a ill conceived road that will be so congested they will play on the sidewalk.
Whenever I drive into TO from Mississauga I always take the Lakeshore cut off because the Gardiner is bumper to bumper. I think they should leave the Gardiner but expand Lakeshore.
A need for a private car obsolescent? In Europe, yes, in North America not remotely close, unless you’ve living in the downtown core and have little to no use for going beyond such boundaries.
Is this satire? He loves the Gardiner?? This is ludicrous. And he fails to mention how few commuters actually use that stretch to get in and out of downtown. This decision should be a no-brainer. Get rid of it!
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